The benefits of exercise have long been recognised by experts, but if you are not used to exercising on a regular basis, you might wonder if getting started after 50 is really worthwhile. Increases in average life expectancy in the UK mean that we are living healthy lives for longer, and your 50s and 60s can be a perfect time to build fitness and set optimal exercise habits. Even if you have always been fit and active, tweaking your exercise plan can make it more targeted and effective.
If you’re thinking of starting or re-evaluating your exercise plan, here are some exercise questions you probably want to ask (and our answers to those questions).
Is it really worth it?
It really is never too late to start to build healthy activity and exercise into your daily life. Research shows that those who exercise into older age live longer and have more years of healthy living compared to those who do not. Simply looking at muscle mass has been found to be a good indicator of life expectancy, and with knock on benefits like managing chronic conditions, improving wellbeing and shedding extra weight, there is really no excuse not to get more active.
Where should I start?
Building and maintaining fitness after 50 is a different game to in our 20s. If you have not been active for some time, then go to see your GP before launching into an exercise program. Start slowly and listen to your body. Stop and call a doctor if you experience symptoms such as dizziness, lack of breath, or chest pain. Even minor complaints such as swollen joints should be checked out by a professional.
What’s my goal (and is it realistic?)
Short, medium and longer term goals are motivational. The NHS recommends older adults aim for a mixture of moderate and vigorous activity and strength exercises, on a weekly basis. Make your goals realistic and elastic, and try focusing on the benefits you will gain from sticking with your exercise plans. You may not be a contender for the next Olympics, but picturing yourself playing football with your grandchildren or treating yourself to a walking holiday somewhere sunny can be a powerful impetus when you’re tempted to skip an exercise session!
Am I balancing healthy daily activity and exercise?
Keeping fit as an older adult is as much about incorporating moderate daily activity into your life as it is hitting the gym. If you think there’s not enough time for any more exercise, then try to get more active on a day-to-day basis — taking the stairs instead of the lift, parking further from the shop and walking a bit more, or even cycling instead of driving to the shops.
Does my current program fit my lifestyle?
If you find yourself planning to exercise and then looking for reasons to put it off, it might mean that your plans simply are not suited to your lifestyle.
For example, if you don’t enjoy the gym, but do love to be outside, then join a walking group or a ‘Green Gym’ to get exercise through conservation volunteering. If you want to improve strength and flexibility but lifting weights doesn’t appeal to you, join a tai chi group. Even if your mobility is limited, there are tailored exercise programs that can help you find appropriate activities to get the benefits of exercise in a way that suits your lifestyle.
Do I have the right balance of aerobic exercise, strength training, balance and flexibility?
The cornerstones of any exercise program are endurance and strength, balance and flexibility. After 50, finding this balance becomes more important as muscle mass tends to diminish, while improving flexibility and balance can help protect you from falls. If you’re not sure whether or not you are getting the right balance of these elements, then a personal trainer can help you design an exercise program that works for you.
Is exercising improving my emotional health and wellbeing?
Moderate exercise can improve mental health, lessen tension and stress, and release endorphins (‘happy hormones’) which contribute to the feeling of well-being you get after exercising. Exercising outdoors can help you get the best from your workout, as well as joining a yoga class specifically designed to help calm and focus your mind and improve fitness.
Could I take better care of my health more broadly?
Exercising after 50 is important, but do not neglect sensible lifestyle advice such as quitting smoking and moderating alcohol intake. In the UK, older adults are offered various medical screening checks for cervical, breast and bowel cancer, as well as other potentially dangerous conditions. Additionally, between the ages of 40–74, the NHS offer a ‘MOT’ health screening test for people without existing conditions. Arranging and attending an appointment will only take a few minutes, but could be life saving.
Does my diet work with or against me?
Healthy eating is important at any age, but dietary needs do change subtly over time. If you’re about to start or step up an exercise program, this is a good time to review your diet. Older adults are advised to check their protein and fibre intake, for example, as well as take healthy steps like reducing sodium and eating more fruit and vegetables.
The NHS recommend following the ‘Eat Well Plate’ for guidance on portion size and balance, while their ‘Change For Life’ campaign includes lots of information about how to decode food labels and make smart switches to eat more healthily without making major changes in your lifestyle.
What will motivate me to continue?
Increasing activity and exercise is most beneficial if it becomes an everyday habit. The key to this is motivation — especially in the first month of making changes. If you’re struggling to motivate yourself, then get an exercise partner, join a team, or simply rearrange your usual coffee and cake with friends to a catch up while you walk together.
Research from Nuffield Health Clubs in the UK showed that in 2015, the most frequent gym goers had an average age of 72 (so who knows, joining a gym could lead to new friendships!). The benefits of exercise after 50 go well beyond the immediate impact on physical health. By keeping fit and healthy you can stay actively in touch with friends, family and community, avoid or manage chronic conditions, and continue getting the best out life.